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Fear of Dying

Posted Oct 23 2008 12:02pm

Under no circumstances are therapists allowed to provide services to friends or family. This is truly unfortunate. If this were not the case my grandfather, Peter, would have been my most fascinating, albeit frustrating, client. I'd have had him on the couch 3 days a week, a la Sigmund Freud. Before passing away a few years ago he had a concern; more of a fear really. No ... it was a phobia. He was outright terrified of death.

It consumed him day and night to where his sole focus was literally on surviving for as long as possible. This meant: no red meat, no simple carbohydrates, three physicals per year (one is the norm, two is pushing it), wearing a seat belt at all times, no driving in tunnels or on bridges (due to potential terrorism), and no sun ... ever. He kept a purported antidote for Anthrax in his medicine cabinet and considered purchasing a hard hat should he need to walk (at night of course, due to his "no sun" policy) near construction sites.

When I lived on the first floor of my apartment building, he was concerned about tsunamis. When I moved up to the 30th, he freaked out about planes flying into the building. On top of all that, he was angry: The NFL is overpaying their players, gambling should be legal, socks are too black, the price of lettuce has increased by 4% over the past 6 months. I diagnosed him with the following conditions:

Specific Phobia (death)

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Hypochondriasis

Intermittent Explosive Disorder

I'm sure there were others. But he knew I was onto him, since I needed only six years to finally memorize most of the relevant parts of the DSM-IV, so he probably held out on some other neuroses that were part of his personality.

His preoccupation with death always amazed me. Research shows that anxiety about one's mortality generally peaks around 40, but is actually quite low in old age. This is probably because our brains are hard-wired for acceptance of the inevitable, similar to when someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness. In such a case, a person generally goes through stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and finally Acceptance (known as "DABDA" in professional circles). Why didn't Peter ever get that "acceptance" part down? He lived to be 87, dying in his sleep. Why so many years of fighting what most of us ultimately can be prepared for?

The therapist in me hypothesized that this fear was learned in some way. His parents maybe? Friends or teachers? The media? Someone or something taught him to be terrorized by the sheer notion of death. I needed more information. I called up my mother to get the scoop. She always put up an angry front about how mentally ill he was, but I know deep down she felt sorry for him.

"I need to ask you about Pop Pop."

"Who?"

"Your father."

"What about him?"

"Was he always so preoccupied with dying? I mean it was completely pathological."

"I know, it doesn't make any sense. He was a pretty devout believer in Heaven, and it's not like he was beaten by his parents or anything."

"So you don't know of any traumas as a kid or something like that."

"Oh please, he had a great life: good money, decent marriage, fine health. 87 years without even one hospital visit!"

"Maybe that's it. Could he have been so scared to lose what he had?"

"Don't people actually pay you to come up with these answers?"

"No, my work is much more sophisticated than that. In fact,"

"Look, can we talk about this later? The Sopranos are on. I'll tell you one thing, though, get ready to join the party, you're almost at that age where it kicks in."

"What do you mean?"

"All the men in our family have this fear of dying."

"You think it's genetic?"

"Yep, I'd imagine by 40, you're going to be a pretty miserable person. Have a good night."

"Uhh. Thanks."

I guess that gives me five good years before I begin my descent into madness. I should probably get married soon, to have someone to take it out on.

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